Earth : Asia : Southeast Asia : Laos
Laos , officially known as the Lao People's Democratic Republic (Lao PDR), is one of the poorest nations in Southeast Asia. A mountainous and landlocked country, Laos shares borders with Vietnam to the east, Cambodia to the south, Thailand to the west, and Myanmar and China to the north.
Thailand promotes itself as amazing, Vietnam can well be described as bustling, Cambodia's Khmer temples are awe-inspiring, Myanmar's junta is barbaric... but the adjective most often applied to Laos is forgotten. Although there are a few grand (but relatively unheard of) attractions, those visitors who are drawn by the laid-back lifestyle and the opportunity to knock back a few cold Beerlao while watching the sunsets on the Mekong will simply explain the attraction by revealing that the true meaning of "Lao PDR" is Lao - Please Don't Rush.
Laos is squeezed between vastly larger neighbours. First created as an entity in 1353, when warlord Fa Ngum declared himself the king of Lane Xang ("Million Elephants"), the kingdom was initially a Khmer vassal state. After a succession dispute, the kingdom split in three in 1694 and was eventually devoured piece by piece by the Siamese, the last fragments agreeing to Siamese protection in 1885.
The area east of the Mekong, however, was soon wrenched back from Siam by the French, who wanted a buffer state to protect Vietnam, and set up Laos as a unified territory in 1907. Briefly occupied by Japan in 1945, a three-decade-long conflict was triggered when France wanted to retake its colony. Granted full independence in 1953, the war continued between a bewildering variety of factions, with the Communist and North Vietnam-allied Pathet Lao struggling to overthrow the French-leaning monarchy. During the Vietnam War (1964-1973) the United States dropped 1.9 million tonnes of bombs on Laos, mostly in the northeast: for comparison 2.2 million tonnes of bombs were dropped by all sides in World War II.
In 1975, after the fall of Saigon, the Communist Pathet Lao took control of Vientiane and ended a six-century-old monarchy. Initial closer ties to Vietnam and socialization were replaced with a gradual return to private enterprise, an easing of foreign investment laws, and admission into ASEAN in 1997.
Despite being just one hour by air from the hustle and bustle of Bangkok, life in Laos has continued in much the same way it has for hundreds of years, although things are now slowly beginning to change. In the mid-90s the government reversed its stance on tourism, and then declared 1998 "Visit Laos Year" - but despite their efforts and all Laos has to offer, monks still outnumbered tourists throughout the country. This is now rapidly changing, with tourist numbers rising every year. Indeed, Vientiane is a laid-back, yet charmingly cosmopolitan village.
Despite its small population, Laos has 49 ethnic groups, or tribes, from which Lao, Khmou and Hmong constitute approximately three-quarters of the population. Most tribes are small, with some having just a few hundred members. The ethnic groups are divided into four linguistic branches: Lao-Tai language represented by 8 tribes, Mone-Khmer language with 32 tribes, Hmoung-Loumien language with 2 tribes and Tibeto-Chinese language represented by 7 tribes.
Laos is officially Buddhist, and the national symbol, the gilded stupa of Pha That Luang, has replaced the hammer and sickle even on the state seal. Still, there is a good deal of animism mixed in, particularly in the baci (also baasi) ceremony conducted to bind the 32 guardian spirits to the participant's body before a long journey, after serious illness, the birth of a baby or other significant events.
Lao custom dictates that women must wear the distinctive phaa sin, a long sarong available in many regional patterns; however, many ethnic minorities have their own clothing styles. The conical Vietnamese-style hat is also a common sight. These days men dress Western-style and only don the phaa biang sash on ceremonial occasions. Nowadays women often wear Western-style clothing, though the "phaa sin" is still the mandatory attire in government offices (not only for those who work there, but also for Lao women just visiting).
Laos has three distinct seasons:
Russians, Korean, Japanese, Swiss and ASEAN nationals including Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Philippines can enter Laos "visa free" ; all other tourists need a visa in the form of a tourist visa (for one or possibly two months) issued by a Lao embassy or consulate. A visa on arrival is also available to most people entering at the airports in Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Pakse, as well as the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge between Nong Khai in Thailand and Vientiane and on the Lao/vietnam-Border. It is also available when entering via Stung Treng (Cambodia), although guesthouses in Cambodia and the Lao embassy in Phnom Phen will tell it is not to make money with visa services. When applying for a tourist visa or to obtain a visa on arrival, one (maybe two at Lao embassies) passport photo is required (although you may be able to pay a US$1 "fee" to have this requirement waived).
Prices range from US$30 to US$42 depending on nationality - Americans US$35, Canadians US$42, Australians US$30, Chileans US$30, Belgians US$30, British, Dutch, Italians US$35, Swedes US$31, Germans $30-$35.
Visas can be obtained in advance from Lao embassies/consulates. The fee varies by nationality/embassy; US$20 is common, although can be as high as US$63 (in Kuala Lumpur). Processing times also vary; 2-3 days is typical, though you may be able to pay an extra small amount (around US$5) to receive the visa in as little as one hour. In Phnom Penh the travel agencies can arrange the visa the same day (but may charge as much as US$58) while getting it from the embassy takes a few days. Getting a visa from the embassy in Bangkok costs around 1,400 baht for most nationalities, plus 200 baht more for "same day" processing. It's cheaper and quicker to get one at the border.
Visas are also available at the Lao PDR consulate in Khon Kaen, Thailand. Thai and English (limited) are spoken by consular staff. Hours are Monday-Friday 08:00 to 12:00 and 13:00 to 16:00. (UPDATE July 2012): There have been several changes that took place in February 2012. Prices have increased and are now similar to those charged by the Laotian Embassy in Bangkok.
Visas for Americans, Brits, and several EU countries cost 1,400 baht/45 USD, Australians and New Zealanders pay 1,200 baht/US$38, Canadians pay 1700 baht/US$54 while Chinese pay 600 baht/US$20. Officially, visas can be picked up the next day (or pay an additional 200 baht to have the visa issued within 1 hour). Officially, only baht is accepted. However if you don't have baht may take US dollars. Note: When asked, consular staff were using a 30-31 baht to the dollar rate, making it more expensive than getting one on arrival and paying in US Dollars). Given that a visa for many countries can be had for US$20-42 at the border, getting a visa at the border is cheaper and quicker. NOTE: If you are taking the direct Khon Kaen to Vientiane bus and you require a visa for Laos, the bus company will not sell you a ticket unless you have a visa already issued.
There are Visa-on-Arrival facilities at the international airports in Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Pakse, and at all border crossings (see below), including now overland from Cambodia (visa on arrival facilities opened at Voen Kham -north of Stung Treng, Cambodia- in February 2010). The cost varies between US$30 and US$42 (if paid with US$ notes; paying with Thai baht will cost considerably more and border officials will not accept Lao kip at all). If you pay in Thai baht, the cost is usually 1,500 baht (about US$47-48). A US$1 "out of office hours/overtime" surcharge, and a small (possibly 10 baht to US$1) entry stamp fee, might also be charged.
Entry permit extensions (sometimes referred to as "visa extensions") are available from the Immigration Department in Vientiane, the Immigration Department in Luang Prabang, the Police Station in Pakse, and possibly other cities. Extensions are NOT possible in Lao's second city, Savannakhet, although you can do a border run from there to Thailand to get a new 30 day visa. The cost is US$2 per day plus a small "form fee" ranging between 5,000 kip (Pakse) to US$2 (Luang Prabang.) The process is very easy; turn up in the morning with your passport and one photo; fill in a form (in Luang Prabang they do this for you) and come back in the afternoon for your extension.
If you want to extend for longer than two weeks and are near the Thai border, it can be more cost effective to pop over the border (entry to Thailand is free for most western nationalities) and return immediately to get a new 30 day Lao visa.
Extensions are also possible via agencies elsewhere in Laos (who will courier your passport to Vientiane and back again, around US$3 per day minimum of 7 days).
The international airports at Vientiane and Luang Prabang are served by national carrier Lao Airlines  and a few others, including Thai Airways , Bangkok Airways  (Luang Prabang only) and Vietnam Airlines . Some seats on flights of Vietnam Airlines are reserved for Lao Airlines (codesharing / better price). Pakse is the third international airport, with flights to/from Siem Reap (Vientiane - Pakse - Siem Reap by Lao Airlines) and from/to Ho Chi Minh City.
Laos used to be off-limits to low-cost carriers, however AirAsia  now flies to Vientiane from Kuala Lumpur three times a week. Another cheap option for getting to Vientiane is to fly to Udon Thani in Thailand with discount airlines Nok Air or Air Asia and connect to Nong Khai and the Friendship Bridge via shuttle service directly from the airport (40 minutes); from here Vientiane is just 17 km away.
If you're coming from Chiang Mai, please note that there are no ATM or money changing facilities at the international departure terminal of the airport. If you're planning to get a visa on arrival in Laos, make sure you get enough USD "'in town'" before you leave for the airport. Thai Baht is also accepted, but at very inflated rates.
The long-awaited first link across the Mekong from the Thai town of Nong Khai to Tha Naleng near Vientiane finally opened in 2009. There are two shuttle services per direction per day, with one timed to connect to the night trains to/from Bangkok. Visa on arrival is available when crossing the border by train. The train is not a very attractive option because the railway station is in the middle of nowhere.
Most border crossings open for foreigners, with an indication where visas on arrival can be issued, are listed on the web site of the National Tourism Administration . This list is unfortunately incomplete.
Visa on arrival for Laos is now available (as of Feb 2010) when entering from Cambodia overland (previously was not available), with an official "Visa on Arrival" office incorporated into the checkpoint. The nearest Cambodian town is Stung Treng, and the border is a 90-minute speedboat or bus ride away. Note that the border is lightly used, with almost no onward public transport available at the border (therefore book through transport from Stung Treng to Ban Nakasang for Si Phan Don/Don Det) and both customs officers and transport providers have a reputation of gouging foreigners, although this seems to have improved recently (currently both Cambodian and Laos border officials request US$1 stamp fee per country). Crossing the border (Oct 2010) the Cambodia officers will ask for US$1 for exit stamp.You can tell them you don't have any and they will still stamp it. On the Laos side they will demand US$2 for entry stamp, if you refuse they will not stamp it, (you will need the stamp to get out), so you have no choice than to pay the bribe. Note if you cross the border by boat, you will have to return by road to the border checkpoint to officiate your arrival (ie. get your passport stamped) in Laos.
Two pitfalls at the Lao-Cambodian border are that you will often have four changes of bus (some of them tiny minibuses where passengers have to sit on each others' laps), and hours spent driving to remote guesthouses to pick up backpackers; if your luggage has been sent in a bus you are not on (because of 'lack of space') it will sometimes disappear. The 'King of Bus' company is known to do this.
The land crossing between Mengla (Yunnan) and Boten (Laos) is open to foreigners and visa on arrival is possible (US$37 for UK citizens) or you can get in advance at the Lao consulate in Kunming. Daily bus service operates from Mengla to Luang Namtha and Udomxai. Buses from Mengla to Luang Namtha leave from the North bus station. The first bus leaves around 08:00 and costs about 40 RMB.
Generally speaking, it is not possible for independent travellers to cross from China to Laos via the Mekong River, not least because there's a chunk of Myanmar in the middle and the Lao checkpoint at Xieng Kok does not issue visas on arrival. Travel agents in China, including Panda Travel , run irregular cruises from Jinghong (China) via Chiang Saen (Thailand) to Huay Xai (Laos), but schedules are erratic and prices expensive.
Foreigners cannot legally cross the Laos/Myanmar border.
There are Eight border crossings open to all between Thailand and Laos. From north to south:
There are at least six border crossings that can be used by foreigners. These include:
By motorbike from Vietnam
The border crossing on a Vietnamese motorbike at Tay Trang is very easy and straightforward. You arrive after going over some hills at the Vietnamese border where very friendly guys handle your case easily and with no hassle. You fill out the form for "temporary export of a vehicle", show them the Vietnamese Registration Card for the bike (which is in the owners name, not yours usually) and pay US$10. Then you proceed to the police, show the papers to them and get the exit stamp.
You then have to drive for 6 km over the mountains to get to the Lao checkpoint. There you will find some not so friendly border guards who expect you to pay 5,000 kip for general fees and 25,000 kip for importing a vehicle. They fill out the form themselves and issue a 30-day visa (there is some talk on the Internet about 15-day visa or even 7-day arriving on a bike, but that's crap).
So after spending maybe 20 mins on at each border you and your bike are in Laos and the journey can go on! Brroammm...
Being in transit by air, road or river in Laos can be as rewarding as the destination itself - but allow plenty of leeway in your schedule for the near-inevitable delays, cancellations and breakdowns.
State carrier Lao Airlines  has a near-monopoly on domestic flights, a dodgy safety history in the past, but a good safety record now. The fairly comprehensive network is by far the fastest (and, relatively speaking, the safest) way of reaching many parts of the country. As of 2009, the popular Vientiane-Luang Prabang route costs US$87 (one-way full fare for foreigners), but covers in 40 minutes what would take you at least ten to twelve hours by bus. Flights to more remote destinations, though, are flown on the Xian MA60, a Chinese knockoff of the Soviet An-24, and are frequently cancelled without warning if the weather is bad or not enough passengers show up.
Lao Airlines also flies 14-passenger Cessnas from Vientiane to Phongsali, Sam Neua and Sainyabuli (Xayabouly) several times a week. These airfields are all rudimentary and flights are cancelled at the drop of a hat if weather is less than perfect.
Some common routes through Laos include:
Local transport (less than 20 km) in Laos consists of tuk-tuks, jumbos, and sky labs (motorised three or four wheelers). A jumbo should cost no more than 20,000 kip (about US$2.50) for short journeys of 1-5 km.
You can now also travel the entire length of the country using a fully guided 'hop-on hop-off' bus service provided by Stray Travel. This is the only guided hop-on hop-off bus in South East Asia.
Especially women' should be aware that often during lengthy bus or minibus trips there is no opportunity to go to the toilet during breaks, so it may be advisable to wear a wide skirt.
A songthaew (ສອງແຖວ) is a truck-based vehicle with a pair of bench seats in the back, one on either side — hence the name, which means "two rows" in Thai. In English tourist literature, they're occasionally called "minibuses". By far the most common type is based on a pick-up truck and has a roof and open sides. Larger types start life as small lorries, and may have windows, and an additional central bench; smaller types are converted micro-vans, with a front bench facing backwards and a rear bench facing forwards.
Songthaews are operated extensively as local buses (generally the most economical way to travel shorter distances) and also as taxis; sometimes the same vehicle will be used for both. Be careful if asking a songthaew to take you to someplace if there is nobody in the back, the driver might charge you the taxi price. In this case, check the price of the ride before embarking.
The name tuk-tuk is used to describe a wide variety of small/lightweight vehicles. The vast majority have three wheels; some are entirely purpose-built , others are partially based on motorcycle components (primarily engines, steering, front suspension, fuel tank, drivers seat). A tuk tuk organization in Vientiane controls the prices that tourists are expected to pay for point to point destinations. The rates negotiable, and well you should clearly bargain rates prior to getting on the tuk tuk. The current rates can be found here: Tuk Tuk Prices in Vientiane
Motorcycle travel in Laos is not without risks, but the rewards of truly independent travel are great. There are several rental shops in Vientiane only and bike rentals in other parts of the country are few. Quality of machines varies from shop to shop so you need to fully inspect your new friend before you head out on the road. There are many good roads and many paved ones and touring Laos is done easily. Most bikes in Laos are Honda Baja or XR 250 dual purpose bikes and anything else is usually mechanically questionable. Helmets are not only mandatory in the country but a valuable item in a place where traffic rules are made up by the minute. Police have been cracking down on people who do no have a motorcycle licence, so expect to pay a fine if caught without one.
Cycling is a great option with quiet roads. Laos offers wonderful remote areas to discover, very little traveled roads, friendly people and even some companies providing cycling tours with the help of professional guides all over the country. The more time people seem to spent in Laos the more they seem to like the quiet travel mood and the opportunity to actually be in contact with the people along the way. Good maps are available about the roads in Laos and all major routes are with good roads. In normal distances you find simple guest houses and in all major towns better choices and restaurant. Food is not a problem as long as you remember to carry some stuff with you. Tropical fruits and noodle soup are popular choices.
There are a number of local operators running a wide selection of guided mountain biking tours through Laos.
If you travel on your own, there are very few proper bike shops outside of Vientiane, especially for bikes with 28 inches wheels. Bring your equipment with you and make sure you get contact details of a supplier, maybe from Thailand.
Some may prefer the speed of a motorbike, but note that some roads are still not ideal for a scooter due to the poor balance of Chinese imported bikes.
Boats along the Mekong and its tributaries are useful shortcuts for the horrible roads, although as the road network improves river services are slowly drying up, and many of the remaining services only run in the wet season, when the Mekong floods and becomes more navigable. Huay Xai (on the border with Thailand) to Luang Prabang and travel south of Pakse are the main routes still in use.
There are so-called slow boats and speedboats - the latter being tiny lightweight craft equipped with powerful motors that literally skid across the water at high speeds.
By slow boat
Many people go from Chiang Khong in Thailand via the border town of Houai Xai down the Mekong to the marvellous city (if you can call a town of 16,000 a city) of Luang Prabang. The ride takes two days and is very scenic. Apart from that, it is a floating backpacker ghetto with no (good) food sold, so bring some, cramped and considerably hot. It's your choice, but one of my fellow travellers remarked the second day 'no one looks happy on this boat any more...' Be sure to bring a good (long) read, something soft for the wooden benches and your patience.
Recently the boats have considerably improved. They now have soft used car seats, and serve pre-fab food, which is not great but certainly sufficient. Because of the above warning, I considered a luxury boat, but there is no reason for that. Luxury boats are very expensive, and probably not nearly as memorable.
An attractive choice for some, with a 6 hour ride from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang, as compared to the two-day trip on the slow boat, but not for the faint of heart. Expect to be crammed into a modified canoe made for 4, with 10 other people, along with all the luggage somehow packed in. Expect to sit on the floor of the canoe, as there are no seats, with your knees against your chin for the full 6 hours. Expect an incredibly loud engine inches behind your head. Expect the engine to break a few times, and stops for delays to fix it. That being said, when this ride finally ends, if you make it with no trouble, you will never be happier to get to Luang Prabang. Stories of small, overloaded speedboats sinking or hitting driftwood are common, but if you are a good swimmer, take comfort in the fact that you can see both shores throughout the entire trip. So, as you see, choosing between the slow boat and the speedboat is a hard call, based mostly upon your comfort level; would you prefer a slow unpleasant trip, or a much faster, but more dangerous unpleasant trip. Either way, the scenery along the way is gorgeous and unexploited, and Luang Prabang is an incredible city, worth a thousand of these journeys.
January 1, 2007: There are unconfirmed reports that as of January 1, 2007, the Lao Government has banned the use of speedboats due to environmental concerns. Relying on speedboats for travel may not be an option, and further information should be investigated. However, in early December 2007 speedboats were still cruising the Mekong, operating the Vientiane-Paklay-Vientiane route on five days/week and the Luang Prabang-Huay Xai route.
Though helpful in saving time, speedboats are not without danger: built to carry 8 passengers, they are often overloaded; the engine noise is well above a healthy level, which could be a serious hazard to your ears, especially if you are on the boat for a long time (as well as causing considerable noise pollution, scaring wildlife and spoiling the peaceful river life); and fatalities resulting from capsize due to incautious maneuvering, or hitting floating logs or hidden rocks, have been reported (and exaggerated by competing slow boat owners, some say...) However, the vast majority of speedboat users have no serious problems. If you are taller than the average Laotian (many are), are a bit claustrophobic and/or have inflexible leg muscles you are guaranteed an extremely uncomfortable experience for several endless hours.
Suggestions for those who decide to take the risk:
See also: Lao phrasebook
The official language of Laos is Lao, a tonal language closely related to Thai. Thanks to ubiquitous Thai broadcast media most Lao understand Thai fairly well, but it's worth learning a few basic expressions in Lao. Most younger people prefer to learn English over other foreign languages in school, so young people generally know some basic English, though proficiency is generally poor. French, a legacy of the colonial days, still features on signs and is understood by some older people, but these days English is far more popular. Tourist areas will sometimes have school children who will practice their English with you as part of their curricular requirements. They may after a conversation, ask you to sign a form or pose for a photo with you as proof that this conversation took place. These conversations can be a great time to gain some local ideas for your next sightseeing trip.
There are two main ways to turn the Lao script into the Latin alphabet: either French-style spellings like Houeisay, or English-style spellings like Huay Xai. While government documents seem to prefer the French style, the English spellings are becoming more common. The latter is used on Wikitravel. Two quick pronunciation tips: Vientiane is actually pronounced "Wieng Chan", and the letter x is always read as an "s".
The key attraction of Laos is its undoubted status as the least westernised, the most relaxed and thereby the most authentic of all Indochinese nations. How much longer this will last is open to much speculation, but while it does this is a truly special and unique country to visit.
The term wilderness is much misused, but it can truly be applied to much of Laos. The mighty Mekong river and its tributaries together create perhaps the single most important geographic feature of the country. Its meandering path in the North has created some of the most stunning limestone karsts anywhere on earth. The backpacker-central town of Vang Vieng is a commonly used base for exploring the karsts. Further north, the terrain becomes more hilly, and the jungle less explored. Luang Namtha is the far-northern town which makes the best base for those visitors who really want to see the truly remote Lao wilderness, and directly experience the lifestyles of the various hill tribes in this region.
In direct contrast to Northern Laos, the Mekong delta lowlands in the South are perfectly flat. Si Phan Don (four thousand islands) is a great base for experiencing what is surely the most chilled and relaxed region anywhere in Asia. Experiencing local village life, taking it all in and doing absolutely nothing should be the aim here. There are though some wonderful river-based sights, including the largest falls anywhere in Southeast Asia. If you are lucky you might get a close-up view of a Mekong pink dolphin.
In this most Buddhist of nations, it is no surprise that temples are a key attraction. In the capital city of Vientiane, the three-layered gilded stupa of Pha That Luang is the national symbol and most important religious monument in the country, dating from the 16th century. There are numerous other beautiful temples which on their own make a stay in the capital city vital for any visitor to Laos.
The whole of the ancient capital of Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Befitting that status, this is a truly unique city. Beautifully preserved gilded temples with their attendant orange-robed monks mold almost seamlessly with traditional wooden Lao houses and grand properties from the French colonial era. Spotlessly clean streets with a thriving café culture on the banks of the Mekong and the Nam Khan, complete the picture of a city which is almost too pleasant to be true.
The Plain of Jars is a megalithic archaeological landscape dating from the Iron Age. Thousands of stone jars are scattered over a large area of the low foothills near Phonsavan. The main archaeological theory is that the jars formed part of Iron Age burial rituals in the area, but this is by no means proven, and a great deal of mystery remains. The area suffered tragic damage from American bombing during the Secret War of the 1960s, and much UXO remains uncleared. When that process is complete it is very likely this will be declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The town of Vieng Xai provides a striking insight in the recent history of not only Laos, but the whole of Indochina. In 1964, the US began intensive bombing of the Lao communist movement – Pathet Lao – bases in Xieng Khouang. Under much bombardment, the Pathet Lao moved east to Vieng Xai and established their headquarters in the limestone karst cave networks around the town. A whole 'Hidden City' was established which supported around 20,000 people. During nine years of almost constant American bombing, the Pathet Lao sheltered in these caves, and lived in a largely subterranean environment. Schools, hospitals and markets as well as government ministries, a radio station, a theatre and military barracks were all hidden in the caves. After the 1973 ceasefire, Vieng Xai briefly became the capital of Laos, before that function was moved to Vientiane in 1975. There are formal daily tours of the caves, as well as other evidence of that era in the town.
Trekking in mountainous Northern Laos is popular, and this often includes homestays in minority tribe villages. The main hub for this is Luang Namtha where the two day Ban Nalan Trail is especially notable. The trek route goes through the Nam Ha National Protected Area, and involves staying in Khmu villages. Other trekking hubs include Oudomxay, south of Luang Namtha, and Pakse in southern Laos.
On the river
Tubing (floating down the river on a large inflatable tube) is one of the attractions of the Southeast Asia backpacker circuit. The hugely popular stretch of the Nam Song at Vang Vieng is lined with bars that lure you and your tube in with ziplines, water slides, loud music, buckets of terrible local whiskey, and unlimited Beerlao. If you're more interested in enjoying the scenery, more serene tubing locations include Si Phan Don, Nong Khiaw and Mung Ngoi.
River cruises are a popular way to take in Laotian scenery, and options include working your way up or down the Mekong.
One Laotian experience definitely worth trying is the herbal sauna. Often (but not always) run by temples, these are simple-looking affairs, often just a rickety bamboo shack with a stove and a pipe of water on one side, usually open only in the evenings. The procedure for a visit usually goes like this:
The Lao currency is the kip, which is non-convertible (outside Laos), unstable and generally inflationary. Approximate exchange rates as of March 2011 are 1 euro = 10,000 kip, 1 GBP = 12,000, 1 THB = 260 kip & 1 USD = 8,000 kip. Make sure that you get rid of all your kip before you leave the country (unless keeping a handful as a souvenir: it is possible to exchange kip into foreign currencies at Vietiane airport.
The largest note is 100,000 kip and uncommon; the notes in common circulation are 500, 1000, 2000, 5000, 10,000, 20,000 and 50,000 kip. Withdrawing the maximum of 1,000,000 kip from an ATM could result in 50 notes of 20,000 kip each. This makes carrying large quantities of kip quite inconvenient. Although less common than in the past US$ can sometimes be accepted, although usually at about 5-10% less than the official rate. Thai baht can also be accepted in many areas near the border, notably Vientiane. Beware though, that in remote places only kip is accepted and no ATMs will be available, so plan ahead.
More touristy places and banks are also accept the euro. So if you're from one of the euro countries, just bring some just in case. This could be cheaper than changing your euros into baht or US$ and then into kip.
There are many ATMs in Vientiane, and they have also appeared in other major cities including Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, Savannekhet, Tha Khaek, Pakse and Luang Namtha. BCEL , the largest bank, accepts both Visa/Cirrus and MasterCard/Maestro, but surcharges of US$1-2 apply.
Many banks, travel agents and guest houses will allow you to take out cash from a credit card as a cash advance. This usually occurs by withdrawing the money in US$ from the card as a cash advance; the card issuer will usually charge a fee (about 3%), the Lao bank involved will charge about 3%, and then the agent providing the cash advance might (or might not) charge another 3%, and then the amount is converted from US$ to kip at a poor rate to the US$, costing another 5% or so - hence, overall, these transactions are much more expensive than the typical charge for withdrawing cash from ATMs in other countries. However, as for example euros get pretty bad rates compared to US$ when exchanged in Laos, getting a cash advance in US$ and changing it to kips might actually save money compared to bringing euros with you to Laos. Expats living in Vientiane routinely get cash from ATMs in Nong Khai or Udon Thani (Thailand), where the maximum per transaction is mostly 20,000 baht, or ten times what you'll get in Laos.
The use of both ATMs and credit cards in banks is subject to computer operation, staff's computer skills, power cuts, telephone network breakdowns, National Day, etc etc. A few travellers have been forced out of the country prematurely as they couldn't withdraw funds to further their travels. Always bring cash as well. Changing money can be next to impossible outside major towns.
Banks give good rates, and private exchange booths are common in the major tourist areas.
Many shops start an hour's lunch break at noon, and some maintain the (now abolished) official French two-hour break. Nearly everything is closed on Sundays, except restaurants and many shops.
Some Laoatians consider tourists as "cash cows", and whilst not as bad as in Vietnam they will take whatever tourists are willing to pay; however honest and decent Laoatians far out number the dodgy characters, especially outside the main tourist areas. Hotels are of lower quality for higher prices than in Thailand or Cambodia, the dishes in restaurants are smaller and the tuk-tuks more of a rip-off. As can be expected it's worse in the tourist centres of Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng than in the smaller towns and villages.
A budget of US$40 a day is a good rule of thumb, though it's possible to get by on less. A basic room with shared bathroom can be as little as US$6 in Vang Vieng, rising to US$10-15 in Vientiane and Luang Prabang. Meals are usually under US$5 for even the most elaborate Lao, Thai or Vietnamese dishes although western food is more expensive. A local bus from Vientiane to Vang Vieng costs US$5; the slow boat from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai costs US$25.
Unlike in Thailand access to temples in Luang Prabang is not free, with an entrance fee typically being 10,000 kip.
Laos is more expensive than Thailand and Cambodia, as most goods, petrol & food is imported from Thailand and Vietnam. Also, some people, and especially tuk tuk drivers, consider 1 US$ as being equivalent to 10,000 kip, where as the official exchange rate is better.
Outside of tourist centres rooms can be as low as US$2.50 per night and even at Si Phan Don for US$5/night. A large bowl of noodle soup is around US$1, as are large bottles of Beer Laos. Excluding transportation, living on US$15/day should not be too difficult.
What to buy
Typical Lao dresses in cheap machine-made fabric can be made to order. Expect to pay around US$5 for the fabric and US$2 for labour. Handmade Lao silk is one of the most attractive things to buy. The Talat Sao (Morning Market) in Vientiane has dozens of small shops selling 100% handmade silk scarves or wall hangings from US$5 upwards depending on quality, intricacy of design and size. Beware cheap synthetic fabrics sold as 'silk' imported from China and Vietnam. Be careful also of 'antique' silk. There is very little left but new fabric can be made to look old and worn. Still attractive, but don't pay more than US$30-50. In markets, always bargain: it is expected, but keep smiling...
Lao cuisine is very similar to the food eaten in the north-eastern Isaan region of Thailand: very spicy, more often bitter than sweet, and using lots of fresh herbs and vegetables served raw. Some of the raw vegetables can be used to cool your mouth when the chilis are overwhelming.
Rice is the staple carbohydrate. The standard kind is sticky rice (ເຂົ້າໜຽວ khao niaow), eaten by hand from small baskets called tip khao. Using your right hand, pinch off a bit, roll into a ball, dip and munch away.
The national dish is laap (ລາບ, also larb), a "salad" of minced meat mixed with herbs, spices, lime juice and, more often than not, blistering amounts of chili. Unlike Thai larb, the Lao version can use raw meat (dip) instead of cooked meat (suk), and if prepared with seafood makes a tasty if spicy carpaccio.
Another Lao invention is tam maak hung (ຕໍາຫມາກຫຸ່ງ), the spicy green papaya salad known as som tam in Thailand, but which the Lao like to dress with fermented crab (ປູດອງ pudem) and a chunky, intense fish sauce called pa daek (ປາແດກ), resulting in a stronger flavor than the milder, sweeter Thai style. Other popular dishes include ping kai, spicy grilled chicken, and mok pa, fish steamed in a banana leaf.
In addition to purely Lao food, culinary imports from other countries are common. Khao jii pat-te, French baguettes stuffed with pâté, and foe (pho) noodles from China are both ubiquitous snacks particularly popular at breakfast. Note that foe can refer both to thin rice noodles (Vietnamese pho) as well as the wide flat noodles that would be called kuay tiow in Thailand.
The national drink of Laos is the ubiquitous and tasty Beer Lao, made with Laotian jasmine rice and one of the few Lao exports.It maintains an almost mythical status amongst travellers and world beer aficionados. The yellow logo with its tiger-head silhouette can be seen everywhere, and a large 640 ml bottle shouldn't cost more than 10,000 to 15,000 kip in restaurants. It's available in three versions: original (5%), Dark (6.5%) and Light (2.9%). The brewery claims they have 99% market share.
Rice spirit, known as lao-lao, is everywhere and at less than US$0.30 per 750 ml bottle is the cheapest way to get drunk. Beware, as quality and distilling standards vary wildly.
Lao coffee (kaafeh) is recognised to be of very high quality. It's grown on the Bolaven Plateau in the south; the best brand is Lao Mountain Coffee. Unlike Thai coffees, Lao coffee is not flavoured with ground tamarind seed. To make sure you aren't fed overpriced Nescafé instead, be sure to ask for kaafeh thung. By default in lower end establishments, kaafeh lao comes with sugar and condensed milk; black coffee is kaafeh dam, coffee with milk (often, however, you'll get non-dairy creamer) is kaafeh nom.
Tap water is not drinkable, but bottled water is cheap and widely available. However filtered technology is developing.
There is not much nightlife outside of Vientiane and Vang Vieng. To have a beer in some places, simply visit a restaurant. Something to note however is that some areas may be so laid back that they will expect you to keep track of of what you have drunk, with the odd guest house asking how much you have drunk during your stay upon check out.
Accommodation options outside the Mekong Valley's main tourist spots are limited to basic hotels and guest houses, but there are many budget and mid-price hotels and guest houses and quite a few fancy hotels in Vientiane and Luang Prabang. Pakse has the Champasak Palace.
Lao work permits are difficult to obtain, unless you can secure employment with one of the numerous NGOs. English teaching is possible but poorly paid (US$5-8/hour).
One of the most interesting ways to get to know a country, and which has become increasingly popular, is to volunteer. One organisation that offers volunteer work in Laos is Travel to Teach .
As of 2006, the Lao PDR criminal code for drug trafficking or possession are:
For producing, trafficking, distributing, possessing, importing, or exporting:
Heroin: up to life imprisonment and 10 million kip ($1,316) fine; death penalty for possession of over 500 g.
Chemical substance: up to 20 years imprisonment 50 million kip ($6,578) fine.
Amphetamines: up to 5 years imprisonment and 7 million kip ($921) fine.
Opium: up to 15 years imprisonment and 30 million kip ($3,947) fine; death penalty for possession of quantities over 3 kg.
Marijuana: up to 10 years imprisonment and 20 million kip ($2,631) fine; death penalty for quantities over 10 kg.
Parts of Laos have a good deal of Malaria so anti-malarials are recommended if visiting those areas for an extended period, but check with health professionals: there are many high incidence of drug-resistant parasites around Laos. Other mosquito-born diseases, such as dengue, can be life-threatening, so make sure you bring at least 25% DEET insect repellent and ensure that you sleep with mosquito protection like nets or at least a fan. Vientiane seems to be malaria-free but not dengue fever-free. The mosquitoes that are active during the day carry dengue and those that are active in the evening carry malaria.
The usual precautions regarding food and water are needed. Bottled water are widely available but almost all of them are less-filtered.
Vientiane has several medical clinics are associated with European embassies. Otherwise, you probably have to go to Thailand for better treatment of serious injuries and illnesses. Udon Thani and Chiang Mai are generally recommended; they're only a few hours away, depending on your location in Laos. Ubon Ratchathani and Chiang Rai might have suitable clinics, as well, and there's Bangkok, of course. Expatriates in Laos probably have the best information; the more upscale hotels can be good resources, as well.
Medical travel insurance is a practical option. Visitors always need to examine the local infection information, too. In fact, as Western and European medical industries reported so much, the environment in Laos has infectious issues even now. According to local newspapers, Laos goverment is eager to launch improvement plans of water and foods quality. The travel guide "Lonely Planet" also describes this social reality. However, it is not definitely affecting the tourism market. Laos goverment sides and tourism industries never show the atittude to adjust this serious problem.
Dress respectfully (long trousers, sleeved shirts) when visiting temples and take your shoes off before entering temple buildings and private houses.
As with other Buddhist countries, showing the soles of your feet is very poor manners. Never touch any person on the head. Despite prevelant cheap alcohol, being drunk is considered disrespectful and a loss of face.
Things in Laos happen slowly and rarely as scheduled. Keep your cool, as the natives will find humor in any tourist showing anger. They will remain calm, and venting your anger will make everybody involved lose face and is certainly not going to expedite things, particularly if dealing with government bureaucracy.
Respect for monks is part of Laotian life, and the monks take their duties seriously. Remember that monks are forbidden to touch women. Some undertake a vow of silence, and will not answer you even if they can understand and speak English. It is best not to compel them to stand next to you for a photograph, or start a conversation, if they seem reluctant.
Internet cafés can be found in larger towns, however access speeds are usually painfully slow and cafe staffs have less knowledge. The most reliable connections are in Vientiane, and usually cost around 100 kip/minute, with the cheapest offering 4,000 kip/hour. However Internet security is not guaranteed and computer virus issues are ignored.
In most cases, Wi-Fi with Mac/Linux laptop or iPad are highly recommended. Some cafes offer free Wi-Fi-access for customers (check first if it's really free). Many accommodations now offer free Wi-Fi. GPRS via mobile phone is also an option, especially if you have a local or Thai SIM, for those who intend to stay longer term and require mobile internet.
Mobile phone usage in Laos has mushroomed, with four competing GSM operators. Two of these offer roaming services. Calling people on the same network is always cheaper than calling another network, but there is no clear market leader. Tourist and expats tend to prefer Tigo or M-phone (Laotel), while locals could have any of the four networks.
Local prepaid SIM cards can be purchased in various shops and stores without any paperwork. But be aware that most networks, also including phone and fax traffic, are tapped by government order.
As another option, there is Thai GSM coverage close to Thai border (including a significant part of Vientiane), and Thai SIM cards and top-up cards can be bought in Laos; in addition, DeeDial International Call Cards are available. Thus, if you already have Thai number, you can use (generally cheaper) Thai network and/or avoid buying one more SIM. However, beware - if you have a Thai SIM which has international roaming activated it will connect to a Lao network when the Thai network is not available, and the roaming charges will be significantly higher.
Postal service in Laos is slow but generally reliable. Other paid options such as Fed Express, DHL, and EMS exist in various locations. Though these services are much more expensive, they are more reliable.